Posted by: bellabook1 | October 30, 2014

The Fresh Scent of Nineteenth-Century Racism?

In class a few weeks ago, we discussed this image: Victorian PearsÃÂÃâÂÃâ Soap advertisement circa 1890

In this image, dark skin is clearly equated with dirt and whiteness symbolizes the power of the soap.  Pears: Buffer Away Your Race.   This white-washing of the racial ‘other’ has clear connotations for notions of culture and respectability.

Even though we are no longer living in the nineteenth-century and ostensibly live in a (hopefully) somewhat more self-aware and less overtly  racist world, this image reminds of me of the Old Spice Commercials that were popular a few years back.

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“The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”

Granted, this commercial is largely different from the image we dissected in our discussion: The African-American man is given a voice and he is the only person in the commercial.  This voice and the settings he is placed in, however, feels white-washed. He is on a boat, he is riding a horse while wearing extremely white pants.  He is saying that he is the man whom the women’s men could smell like.

Could this be a modern day combination of “thing culture” and the idea of products “uplifting” its user to a level of whiteness?

Of course, this man: handsome, articulate, wealthy, could obviously be all of these things.  What is problematic with this representation is that it is assumed that this is a fantasy.    And this fantasy is directed at ostensibly white women who are dating white men. You can make this leap because of the reference to the power of scent.  Their men won’t look like this man but could purchase the ability to smell like him.

Not only is this a racially-charged commercial as his body and its scent become a space of white-culture, it is also gendered.  “Don’t smell like a woman” “Smell like me: a REAL man.”  This “real” man is definitely hunky, and affluent but because of his race, which goes unremarked upon, and the exotic locations of the commercials he becomes an almost hybrid and is set up as an unattainable ideal of masculinity.

The fetishizing power of Old Spice is present, but is who is it being directed to? Who is being uplifted?  Is White-Culture present here? Is this something radically different from the advertisement that was originally published in the early 19th-Century?

Or have we not come as far as we may hope?


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